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TEAM FINDS PROOF OF EARHART WRECK ON S. PACIFIC ATOLL

A team of aviation buffs using space-age technology has found the remains of Amelia Earhart's airplane on a remote South Pacific island, the Houston Post reported Saturday.

The discovery will be unveiled at a news conference Monday in Washington, D.C., the paper said.Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and set a number of aviation speed and altitude records, making her a heroine and celebrity of the 1930s.

Accompanied by navigator Fred Noonan, she was attempting to become the first woman to fly across the Pacific when her plane disappeared on July 2, 1937.

Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), told the Post his group found part of the fuselage of Earhart's twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra and personal effects in the jungle on the island of Nikumaroro in a search last fall.

The island is 31/2 mile-long atoll in the island nation of Kiribati.

One of the personal effects was an American-made size 9 shoe, the size worn by Earhart.

The articles have been verified as Earhart's by the National Transportation Safety Board, Gillespie said.

"We will present proof (at the news conference) that the Earhart mystery has been solved. It's been a long, difficult, expensive project," he told the Post.

The newspaper story did not explain how the plane was found, but last June Oceaneering International, a Houston-based company, told Reuters it had been hired by TIGHAR, a non-profit foundation, to use a highly sophisticated underwater sonar device to scan the ocean bottom for remains.

The company employed the same technology to find pieces of the space shuttle Challenger in the Atlantic after it exploded shortly after takeoff in January 1986 and, in 1990, a door that fell from a United Air Lines jet into water 14,400 feet deep in the Pacific.

Oceaneering representatives could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Gillespie told Reuters last summer that TIGHAR's theory was that Earhart and Noonan got lost after they took off from Lae, New Guinea, headed for Howland Island, ran out of fuel and crash-landed on the coral shelf surrounding Nikumaroro.

The aircraft, buoyed by its big empty fuel tanks, likely floated on the reef for several days before sinking somewhere off the coast, he said. The coral is dry at low tide, but covered by three to four feet of water when the tide comes in.

A 1989 TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro found an aluminum box used by navigators to store maps. The box appeared to be similar to one in an old photograph of the ill-fated plane, Gillespie said.

He said Earhart and Noonan may have survived on the island until 1938 when a severe drought struck.

When Earhart's plane disappeared, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a search and Navy ships reported hearing distress signals for three days. Rec-ords of those signals were used by navigators in 1986 to plot the location of the wreck.